Platforming is one genre I had always hoped Xbox Live Arcade was going to reinvigorate. For all those developers who thought a full retail, 2D side-scrolling release was not financially viable, here would be a shop window for their wares. Unfortunately, barring remakes, the class of game that I remember has been reasonably thin on the ground; Cloning Clyde proved a competent if uninspiring vanguard and more recently Braid was met with seemingly universal acclaim, although was hardly traditional. The latest to come haring into view is the exceedingly excitable Splosion Man. The team behind The Maw have produced a being made of pure energy who has but one function in life: to explode. That and to escape the lab he has been confined to.
Every button on the controller is set over to fulfilling Splosion Man’s raison d’etre. This is in all but name his jump button, and with three blasts in him before needing to recharge it can see him traverse large gaps or wall-jump back and forth to scale vertical passage ways. With an easy to control hero the challenge comes from the level design taxing the player in an increasingly interesting number of ways, from the stock platforming fare of moving platforms and instant-death pits, to the more novel sentry bots and devilishly tall rooms with walls that threaten to crush you. Only a couple of levels will ever go by before a new mechanic is introduced, always trying to keep the challenges fresh. Initial stages will be standard platforming affairs but soon exploding barrels are introduced to help you gain height on your jumps, and rotund, doughnut-stuffed scientists are brought on as a meat shield against the sentry guns.
As all of these features are gradually introduced, the game takes on a Sonic the Hedgehog feel. String together a series of smooth flowing jumps, explode off a barrel, take down a robot by exploding/jumping on their head and career through a corridor complete with speed-enhancing camera angles and you could be forgiven for thinking that a blue mascot should be taking the place of this fiery creatures you control. With all his pent up energy, Splosion Man is very adept at moving at pace and so when a level is completed slickly and at speed it brings back memories of days spent with the Mega Drive.
Another worthy comparison is with Mirror’s Edge. After spending time with EA’s first stab at parkour, I found it was possible to complete long stretches, even whole stages, on a first try as long as I was focused and had an ounce of luck with me. When this happened it was an exhilarating experience. The same is true with Splosion Man, but sadly the flipside also applies; when luck deserts you then expect to see the same checkpoints time and time again. It can be incredibly frustrating as many areas make sure that lessons are learnt the hard way, through death. All may be able to be handled with confidence once explored thoroughly once but the fact many must be taken at speed to stand any chance of completion means there is very little margin for error.
To soften the harsher side of the experience, Twisted Pixel has lavished the game with a jolly cartoon feel. Scientists rush around with long, white lab coats operating giant switches and trying to score their next doughnut fix, whilst all the while our protagonist blasts his way through their midst, turning them into cuts of meat. Detonate in the centre of a gaggle of scientists and it will appear as though you’ve blown up the delicatessen counter at Sainsbury’s. There’s a host of loveable audio work, too, from the general gibbering of Splosion Man himself to the doughnut song that plays when the chubbier of scientists are around.
Overall Splosion Man is a very well produced slice of platforming adventure, filling in the more traditional gap between the highbrow concepts of Braid and the ultimately average Cloning Clyde. Giant boss battles help break the flow and whilst all levels begin to look the same after a while, those who look for a side scrolling challenge should find a fix that should have them giggling as manically as Splosion Man himself.
Splosion Man is available through Xbox Live Marketplace.